Rediscovering Julius Eastman and his Minimalist Masterpiece
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On April 16, 2023, UMS presented a performance by Wild Up, a Los Angeles-based musical collective dedicated to celebrating the legacy of Julius Eastman. Eastman was one of the most overlooked and underappreciated composers of the 20th century, and a pioneer of “organic music,” a style that combines repetition, improvisation, and gradual transformation of musical material. He was also a trailblazer as a young, gay, and Black artist who challenged the norms and conventions of his time.
The concert featured Eastman’s masterpiece Femenine, a 70-minute work that he composed in 1974, two years before the premiere of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.
Femenine is based on a simple two-note motif that Eastman called the “prime,” which is played by a vibraphone throughout the piece.
The prime serves as a rhythmic and harmonic anchor for the rest of the ensemble. The musicians are free to choose when and how to play their parts, creating a rich and dynamic texture that evolves organically over time. For their UMS performance, Wild Up’s instrumentation consists of winds, strings, piano, amplified electric piano, percussion, and voice.
Femenine is not only a musical statement, but also a political and personal one.
The piece reflects Eastman’s vision of a more inclusive and diverse society, where different voices can coexist and interact harmoniously. Femenine also expresses Eastman’s joy and resilience in the face of adversity and discrimination.
Unfortunately, Eastman’s life and career were cut short by tragedy. He died in 1990 at the age of 49, after struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse. Most of his scores and belongings were lost or destroyed when he was evicted from his apartment in New York City. His music was largely forgotten and neglected for decades, until a recent resurgence of interest and appreciation from scholars, performers, and listeners.
Wild Up is one of the leading advocates for Eastman’s music today.
Wild Up has recorded Femenine as part of their multi-volume anthology of Eastman’s works, which they hope will introduce his music to a wider audience and inspire new interpretations and collaborations. Their performance of Femenine at UMS will be a rare opportunity to experience this groundbreaking work live and to celebrate the life and legacy of Julius Eastman.
While in Ann Arbor for their residency, Wild Up will film two additional Eastman works for a free UMS digital presentation to be released in June 2023. Sign up for our digital presentations interest list to be notified when available.
📰 The New York Times article: “Minimalist Composer Julius Eastman, Dead for 26 Years, Crashes the Canon”
📰 The New Yorker article: “Julius Eastman’s Guerrilla Minimalism”